Repetition With Variation

#Tuesday, this concept is one of those old chestnuts I use to help teammates, clients, and anyone trying to manage or collaborate with any design form.

I learned this concept in art school, in Typography I, II, and III, and the three extra advanced electives in typography. Now, I believe I have the best professor in my world, John Langdon, if not the world. I can’t tell you how impactful he was in shaping my career and life’s work thus far.

John Langdon/

Side note: John is partially the basis for the Dan Brown series of books on which the movies feature Tom Hanks and Robert Langdon, so there’s that. (Davinci Code, Angels, and Demons, he also provided some of the typography for the story)

Also an excellent book

So, this concept may be common knowledge to most, but in storytelling spaces, it is a challenge to manifest. Repetition is easy and not rare, and variation is also easy and not rare. The combo platter of the two is rare, done well, extremely rare.

What am I saying? RWV, for short, is a reasonably complex exercise for those prepping to storytell well. Too much repetition, and it’s evident and terrible. Take commercials or ad rules that, in a 30-second spot, repeat the call to action three times. Workouts are sets of reps (repetitions), but too much, and you are not strengthening correctly unless there are variations.

So, repetition is repeating something over and over. Variation slightly varies what you repeat to activate the recipient’s brain to pay attention because there is a difference. The difference engine in the brain notices and finds novel. Variation can come in many different flavors while maintaining some basis or pattern in repeating.

So when you have a conversation with someone and the person you are talking to seems to ‘not get what you’re saying,’ you use a common phrase ‘in other words’ or a metaphoric reference, like or as. You are doing it already. The trick is intentionally doing it during story-making, knowing humans need repetition, especially with new or unfamiliar concepts.

A checklist is in order:

  1. Message Discipline – say what you mean and stick to the tell them what, then tell them why, then tell them how, then tell them again, until finally (aka story spines can help)
  2. Once upon a time, all concepts were expressed. Use the idea of Once Upon a Time because that is a standard method to prep with (see also story spines)
  3. Story geometry: Tell the story similarly with rhythm and pacing but from 3 different angles or POVs. This RWV enables perspective and reinforces the importance of your central thesis.
  4. Mental Models are like Critical Mass. Once we’ve reached critical mass, we can use mental models to repeat a key concept with the model variation to embed some brain candy in the brain for later when the person receiving your story has to retell it. This is an added form of post facto transmission with RWV baked in.
  5. Complexity can be simplified with RWV so edible chunks or stories repeated and varied can linger in the brain, moving from the short-terming in the hippocampus to the amygdala and OFC(orbital frontal cortex) and then off to longer-term storage. Memory retention is a secondary benefit of RWV. I’m no brain scientist, but a basic understanding of how the brain stores and processes can help. I will add some book refs on this one cause I’m a book slide nerd.

Think Again by Adam Grant

Algorithms to Live by

Creativity Inc.

The Hidden Brain

And of course the book list

the book slide
A recent image from a deck with the book slide